Drinking Ourselves Fat (Video)

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As seen on TV, people who drink soda are young, happy, active and fit, their jumbo beverages as restorative as spring rain. The imagery has done wonders for beverage sales in recent decades, but it has helped spawn a worsening health crisis. Americans now consume 200 to 300 more calories each day than we did 30 years ago. Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are the biggest contributors to that increase, and the actual effects aren't pretty. Two thirds of adults are now overweight or obese, as are nearly 40% of public school children in New York City. The rates are still rising, and the consequences are severe. They run the gamut from arthritis to diabetes - a leading cause of blindness, amputations, kidney failure and premature death. Sugar-sweetened beverages are not the sole cause of this crisis, just one of the most egregious.

That's why the New York City Health Department is using disgusting images to get people's attention. Our "Pouring On the Pounds" campaign started last summer, with a subway ad that showed soda turning to blubber as it filled a glass. This month we followed up with a mock commercial for sugary drinks. Instead of showing young models frolicking on a beach, we slopped 10 pounds of fatty tissue onto a plate to show how a year's worth of empty liquid calories can add up. A city health department can't match the beverage industry's marketing budget - we produced the spot with a charitable contribution and posted it on YouTube for nothing - but we seem to be striking a chord. The video has racked up nearly a half-million views during its first week online and sparked some overdue reflection on America's drinking habits.

The beverage industry claims it's being singled out unfairly, but the facts are inescapable. From the 1960s to today the typical serving of soda tripled from about 7 ounces to 20 ounces. A single 20-ounce serving contains almost 17 teaspoons of sugar and 250 calories. An increase of even one can of soda or glass of sugary punch each day is enough to raise a child's risk of obesity by 60%, and many kids consume much more than that. Teens who consume soda and other sweetened beverages now draw an average of 356 extra calories from them each day. It would take about 40 minutes jogging or an hour and a half of walking to burn off these excess calories.

What's more, these are additional empty calories, devoid of nutrients. They don't fill you up, the way solid food does, so they tend to increase your total calorie intake. And to the extent that sweetened beverages displace other liquids in the diet, they often displace more nutritious ones, such as milk.

This is an area where simple changes to our habits can make a big difference. Sugar-sweetened beverages are the easiest calories to take out of our diets. We can't live without food, but we can live without soda and other sugary drinks. Beverage makers are fully aware of this fact. According to a 2008 Federal Trade Commission report, they spend nearly $500 million dollars a year to keep children and adolescents drinking.

With our subway posters and our Internet video, we in New York City are working to provide some balance. Images travel fast and far on the Internet when they resonate with people. The attention given to "Pouring On the Pounds" is healthy. If this video helps people change what they drink, it might actually save lives.

Farley is New York City Health Commissioner.